Oliver starts his African career – September, 2013
Art Historians are often unfairly ‘tarred with the same brush’. For example, popular opinion might suggest that someone displaying an unhealthy interest in medieval sculpture would be the sort that tends to get nervous when the pavement runs out. So, with my background and lack of travel experience in mind, hopefully this trip report will give other potential ‘first timers’ at least a cursory feel for what to expect and look forward to on a holiday to Kenya.
With the ink of my degree certificate barely dry, in September I found myself taking my first intrepid steps towards Africa as I boarded an evening Kenya Airways flight to Nairobi. On arrival into Nairobi I was struck by the busy efficiency of the airport; this was business as usual, with operations unhindered by the recent August fire. Threading my way across the city between the darting obstacles of battered traffic, my life safe in the hands of an affable driver, it was obvious just how different and exciting this new world that I had stepped into was.
After inspecting some large city hotels and finding little outward difference between these and European establishments that I have visited in the past, I left the capital city on a light aircraft. The plane comfortably undulated its way north to the Laikipia region, revealing an impressive vista of patchwork greens, browns and blues below. I landed at Nanyuki Airstrip in the African bush, and was met and transferred along an increasingly rustic road to the camp where I spent my first night on safari. I was immediately warmly welcomed by my hosts, Andy and Sonya. Eventually the sun disappeared over the strange, broad horizon, and I settled into the happy task of nursing a gin and tonic while flying embers from the large camp fire danced and faded as they rose into the cool night sky. After enjoying a pleasant evening being regaled with increasingly colourful tales from the bush, I experienced the ineffable joy familiar to every weary traveller, as I was welcomed into a comfortable bed by an attractive hot water bottle.
Despite being forewarned, my first big surprise came the following morning with the temperature that greeted me when I emerged at 06h00 from my cosy tent. It was cold. (If you’re reading this before embarking on your first safari, make sure you take enough fashionable knitwear along with you.) However, suitably fortified by the stiff cup of tea that had been brought to my tent by an Askari, I was ready for a game drive. My guide Onesmus greeted me with a cheerful grin and a hand-shake, and we promptly set off on a bumpy track into the wilderness. Over the next few hours of unflagging conversation, broken only by animal sightings, I quickly discovered that the professorial knowledge Onesmus displayed when discussing flora and fauna also extended to such diverse subjects as premiership football and politics.
On this first drive it was apparent that the conservancy was swarming with wildlife. While I was in this region I saw several herds of elephants. Particularly memorable sightings of these majestic mammals included watching mothers with babies in tow, as they passed close by. Cheetahs were also frequently seen. Their time was spent engaging in bouts of lazy canoodling in the sun and graceful slinking through long grass, before suddenly snapping to alert attention and swiftly annihilating various types of small gazelle. Rhino were also remarkably numerous, and my guide proudly explained that in Ol Pejeta they have four of the remaining six northern white rhino still extant on the planet. But perhaps the most unforgettable experience was hearing the deep, pervasive roaring of a large male lion as it stood in a commanding position on the grass verge, thirty feet from my vantage point.
My next port of call was the famous rolling plains of the Masai Mara. Here I began by exploring the Naboisho conservancy, the newest conservancy in the area. The extensive damage to the surrounding acacia trees was by now easily recognisable as evidence that elephants were persistent visitors to the area surrounding my camp. Indeed, during my first night here I was serenaded to sleep by the rhythmic tearing and crashing of a herd as it trampled its way chaotically through the vicinity. The following morning, a path of mangled deforestation revealed just how close the animals had passed. The already interesting view of the valley was made all the more alien by the nocturnal actions of these magnificent beasts; they had created an otherworldly scene that provided a truly stunning backdrop for the breath-taking technicolour sunsets that took place each evening with regular punctuality, due to my equatorial position.
With assaults on the senses coming thick and fast, the following day I was treated to yet another fresh experience; a walk through the bush. At the hands of another scholarly guide, Francis, I learnt something of the symbiotic relationships of the local plants and animals. He explained that the devastation wrought by elephants was essential for the survival of the tiny ‘Dik-dik’ gazelles that sprang erratically over the ground with electric speed. By bringing foliage to ground level, the elephants provide the Dik-diks with a nutritious lunch free of charge. Eager to further illustrate the importance of interdependence for the survival of living things, Francis stopped me next to a thorny bush of medium height. Grasping one of the four inch, spear-like thorns he proceeded to vigorously shake the bush. Almost immediately, hundreds of ants obediently poured out from cardboard coloured orbs all over the plant, until the branches were dripping with a teeming mass of molten ant-activity. The ants, I learnt, were an in-house security force for these ‘whistling thorn acacia’ bushes. The plants provide free board and lodging for the ants in the form of crab-apple sized spherical shelters, and in return the insects dutifully march out to repel any unfortunate, casually lunching creature that agitates the bush.
During my time in the Mara I also explored the Olare Motorogi and Mara North conservancies, which border the Maasai Mara National Reserve. These conservancies offer a more exclusive game viewing experience than the reserve itself. When I was staying at camps in the Mara, days on safari were surprisingly regimented. There was always a well organised programme of game drives, scheduled to deliver you to back to camp for the pivotal events of lunch and dinner. The al fresco dining, warmly conducted by friendly hosts, was made all the more entertaining by the volunteer chorus of discordantly grunting Impala. I still can’t understand how such a superficially graceful creature is capable of making such an ugly noise. The other things I saw, heard, smelt and felt in Kenya are too numerous to describe exhaustively in this short report. If you are considering your first safari to Africa, I can only say it will be an experience you won’t forget. Try it for yourself: there’s plenty to see when the pavement runs out.
Ed – please don’t expect to see lion, cheetah, leopard and wild dog on your first safari!
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